MS RACHEL Aw, 28, took the road less travelled when she went to work in the Les Amis Group of restaurants after completing her polytechnic studies. She went from trainee to sommelier in five years before she took a degree partly paid for by her employer.

Mr Muhammad Munir Ahmad, 29, chose to work as a trainee technician at Rolls-Royce on graduating from Temasek Polytechnic. He did so well he is now finishing a degree through night classes.

Both these young people said going out to work first helped them discover their passions and talents, and honed skills they can now take to a higher level.

Employers and job recruiters responding to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to set up schemes to allow non-graduates to rise in their careers said that not every young person is willing to take the route chosen by these two. Many prefer the more conventional path of chasing a degree before joining the workforce.

For Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates who have always lagged behind university graduates in career prospects, Mr Lee said on Sunday they will get a boost through a tripartite committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to help match their skills to the right jobs so they can move up.

The committee will put in place an integrated system of education, training and career progression for all Singaporeans.

Currently, around 30 per cent of a cohort go on to study in local universities. Others go abroad or to a private school to get a degree.

Employers welcome the move to help more young people without degrees rise through job performance and skills, but said one thing that must change is the common belief that a degree is the only fast track to a good career.

Mr David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide, said: "The myth that you need a degree to be successful has to be debunked."

Job recruiters say some firms do place more weight on skills and experience when promoting staff than on paper qualifications.

In restaurants and hotels, for instance, ITE and poly graduates can work their way up to become managers, said Restaurant Association of Singapore president Andrew Tjioe.

Food and Beverage Managers' Association president Cheong Hai Poh agreed but said a degree would help for some top positions, like chief executive of a hotel group. "At that level, some further education is important to increase your knowledge of the industry."

Still, recruiters noted that bosses must be willing to pay ITE and poly graduates accordingly.

"Firms need to move them up the ranks if they perform well and give them graduate-level salaries," said Mr Leong.

He agrees with PM Lee, who said a societal shift can come about only when people respect blue-collar and technical jobs.

"This effort to educate people must start from a young age. We must ensure no jobs are scorned," said Mr Leong.